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Long sliding fall in Huntington Ravine

Central Gully in Huntington Ravine. Photo: Sean Hurley, NHPR

On Sunday, February 10, 2019 at 4:45 p.m. U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers from the Mount Washington Avalanche Center responded to a report of an overdue climber. Local volunteer search and rescue teams assembled with Snow Rangers to search the terrain above Huntington Ravine and below the climbers intended route.  The climber was attempting to climb a moderately difficult snow and ice climb called Central Gully. Icy surface conditions that developed in the mountains following several days of warm temperatures and rain increased the danger of long sliding falls the day of the accident. The body was found at approximately 7:45 p.m., recovered from the mountain, and released to local authorities that night. The incident is currently under investigation with law enforcement. When it is appropriate to do so, the Mount Washington Avalanche Center will release an incident report as a public safety and educational tool designed to inform the recreating public of any lessons learned.

The U.S. Forest Service operates the Mount Washington Avalanche Center (MWAC). MWAC issues daily avalanche forecasts and assumes search and rescue responsibilities from the State of New Hampshire for the Cutler River Drainage annually between December 1st and May 31st. In addition to identifying probability of encountering snow avalanches, the forecast contains mountain safety information to help guide Forest visitor decision-making when entering the backcountry.

For media inquiries regarding this incident, please contact Evan Burks, White Mountain National Forest Public Affairs Officer at 603-536-6215.

 

Sliding fall in Hillman’s Highway

Icy conditions will always be a challenge despite the use of self-arrest poles. Once momentum is gained from a skiing fall or unchecked fall while climbing, it is doubtful that even a a well deployed ice axe would work on a knife hardness, icy and steep surface such as the conditions encountered in the report that we received. Here is the submission:

“sliding fall. after climbing 2/3 of the way up hillmans and not finding a ton of good snow we transitioned for our Icy decent. I was the the third and final member of my group to descend. There was a small ribbon of wind slab on the skis right side of the Slide, hand shears had shown positive results. My two partners side slipped the ice to a good point of safety. I tried the wind slab but after a few untrustworthy turns in it I bailed for the more predictable surface of ice. After coming to a stop I started skiing once more and on my second turn I went down. I have practice self arresting on snow with a whippet and skis on but not on ice. I tried twice to self arrest with no luck. I slid for about 200ft before managing to slow myself down in some soft snow that was piled on top of a rock. Unfortunately as i came to a stop my body turned and I fell of the side of the rock landing on my shoulder and dislocating it. My partners and I were able to get in to the pine tree area where we tired to reset the joint with no luck. We slung and secured my arm. I transitioned to crampons and self rescued with a fast stop at hojo to get an ice pack. I then boot packed pinkham then the hospital. A few things I noticed: even with practice my whippet was not an adequate self arresting device in the ice conditions and also my skis made it impossible to roll on to my stomach and execute a proper self arrest.”

 

Long Sliding Fall – Right Gully, Tuckerman Ravine

At about 1:00 PM, a climber took a long sliding fall while ascending Right Gully in Tuckerman Ravine. The subject lost their footing on very hard, icy snow and was unable to self-arrest with an ice axe. The fall occurred near the top of Right Gully and the resulting high speed slide was halted below the gully by exposed bushes and rocks. The fall totaled approximately 300 vertical feet. The subject was able to walk away from the accident, traveling on foot with help of their climbing partner down to Hermit Lake. The primary injury was presumed to be bruised or fractured ribs from impact with the bushes and rocks that stopped the fall. U.S. Forest Service Snow Rangers transported the subject via snowmobile from Hermit Lake to Pinkham Notch.

The subject and witnesses of this accident unanimously described the event as a close call, all surprised that the outcome was not more serious. The subject was indeed lucky to eventually slide into a generally bushy area as opposed to the many nearby rocks that would have likely resulted in greater injuries. Further, the subject was not wearing a helmet and was very fortunate to avoid hitting their head. The party had climbed Right Gully several times in past seasons and stated that they normally did wear helmets while travelling in steep alpine terrain. Further, they did have experience climbing steep snow and were otherwise properly equipped with mountaineering boots, crampons, and ice axes.

This accident highlights the risk of climbing on steep snow slopes when conditions are hard and icy, making self-arrest all but impossible. Such snow conditions can develop when steep slopes in Huntington and Tuckerman Ravines are snow covered. While firm conditions can inspire confidence for climbers travelling uphill with crampons, it can be incredible difficult to arrest a fall once sliding with any amount of speed. While strong self-arrest skills are crucial for travelers on steep snow slopes, it’s just as important to remember that you may not be able to self-arrest in hard snow. Close calls like this one should remind us to always consider the likelihood and consequences of a long sliding fall when travelling on steep snow. These incidents are common and can easily have more serious outcomes.

Two long sliding falls on a frozen spring snowpack

On Sunday afternoon, March 13, two separate accidents occurred on the east side of Mount Washington. Both accidents involved long sliding falls and resulted in life-threatening injuries. Luckily, the skies were clear and the wind was calm, allowing both patients to be evacuated via helicopter.  There are several lessons to take away from these incidents, all coming back to the basics of being prepared and making safe travel decisions.

The first accident occurred when a skier slipped and fell in Hillman’s Highway.  Hitting several rocks on the way down, he sustained serious injuries requiring immediate evacuation.  Just as the helicopter departed Hermit Lake, the second call came in of an injured hiker on the summit cone.  Again, due to a serious injury and a lengthy carry-out, USFS Snow Rangers decided to use a helicopter for transport.  A large thank you must be given to all rescuers involved including the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, AMC, Mount Rescue Service, AVSAR, NH Fish and Game, and several volunteers as the evacuations went smoothly and patients arrived at advanced care in a timely manner.

Weather and Snowpack Analysis

The week leading up to these two incidents coincided with the transition from winter to spring in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravine. On Tuesday, March 8 at 10pm, the temperature on the summit rose and remained above freezing for 48 hours.  During this time period, the summit recorded over 1.25” of rain.  After the warm up, temperatures dropped over 24 hours to the low teens, allowing the water-saturated snowpack to freeze solid.  On Saturday, temperatures warmed along with clear skies, allowing the snow to soften and turn to corn in many areas.  Skiers reported excellent spring conditions in The Lip, Right Gully, and the East Snowfields on the summit.  Left Gully and Hillman’s Highway had parts that softened, while parts remained frozen solid.  Saturday was followed by a blustery, clear day on Sunday.  Skiers reported certain areas softening up, however not to the degree as the day before.  Sunday was the type of day where as soon as snow had shadows cast upon it, the surface froze instantly into firm concrete.

Incident #1: Skier Fall in Hillman’s Highway

Around 3:20pm, six experienced skiers began to descend Hillman’s Highway. One of the skiers slipped and fell approximately 1,000 feet.  Upon arrival at the scene, USFS Snow Rangers and members of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol determined the patient had sustained multiple life-threatening injuries.  After a lower down the remainder of Hillman’s Highway and transport to the awaiting helicopter at Hermit Lake, the patient was in the air and on his way to advanced medical care at 5:14pm.

Hillman's Highway a week prior to the incident. The two red circles indicate where the skier fell and where he came to a rest.

Hillman’s Highway a week prior to the incident. The two red circles indicate where the skier fell and where he came to a rest.

The party of six initially started as multiple parties. The group that the patient was a part of toured into the Gulf of Slides and experienced decent corn conditions in Gully #1.  After the descent, the group decided to climb up and over Boott Spur and ski the looker’s right fork of Hillman’s Highway.  Standing at the top of Hillman’s Highway, the group, now joined by three other skiers, recognized the snow had changed dramatically from their previous run.  Two skiers, including the soon to be patient, donned crampons and an ice axe and climbed down about 200 feet to better assess and avoid the ice at the rollover.  Recognizing the hazard, members of the group collectively decided the risk was manageable with conservative skiing techniques.  The first skier made his way to the bottom of the choke and pulled aside to allow the second skier to go.  This second skier lost his edge on a patch of ice in the narrows.  As the snow had gone into the shade and turned to concrete, the skier had no chance to self-arrest and began an out-of-control slide down Hillman’s Highway.  Due to the low snowpack this winter, Hillman’s Highway, normally a good choice for novice Tuckerman skiers, was full of ice bulges and rock outcroppings.

Falling about 1,000 feet, he came to rest just above the dogleg near the bottom of Hillman’s Highway. The rest of the group made their way to him as quick as the conditions would allow.  Upon arrival, they prevented him from sliding further down the slope and immediately for help.  Snow Rangers, along with Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol members arrived at the patient about 30 minutes after his fall.  The initial assessment indicated life threatening injuries.  Oxygen was administered, the decision to transport via helicopter was made, and the patient was strapped into a litter for travel to the awaiting helicopter at Hermit Lake.

The helicopter at Hermit Lake. Photo by Sam Bendroth

The helicopter at Hermit Lake. Photo: S. Bendroth

Incident #2: Hiker Fall near South East Snowfields

At 5:16pm on Sunday evening, the Gorham Police Department received a call from hikers in distress on the summit cone of Mount Washington. There was confusion as to the exact location of the hikers, but they told Snow Rangers via cell phone that one member of their group of three had broken his femur during a glissade that turned into an out-of-control slide, and was now getting very cold.  A hasty team of one Snow Ranger and the AMC caretaker departed Hermit Lake at 5:45pm, ascending the Lion Head summer trail.  With weather still clear and calm, and dealing again with a possible life-threatening injury, Snow Rangers again decided the best evacuation option was with a helicopter.  The hasty team made visual contact with the hikers just before reaching the Alpine Garden/ Lion Head Junction.  At 7:07pm, the helicopter landed .25 miles away from the patient.  Snow Rangers quickly realized that due to difficult terrain, it was unfeasible to drag the patient to the LZ without a litter.  As the helicopter had to return to base at 8pm due to flight regulations, it left the scene at 7:40pm without the patient.

The east side of the summit cone in summer. The incident site is .25 miles from the LZ.

Over the next hour, more rescuers and a litter arrived. Upon further discussion with dispatch, a new crew boarded the helicopter and took flight, aiming for the landing zone established east of the Alpine Garden Trail.  This helicopter landed at 9:14pm, 10 minutes after the rescuers and patient arrived.  The helicopter departed with the patient at 9:26pm and rescuers made their way to the snowcat at the Cow Pasture and descended the auto road.

Analysis

Both of these accidents have the same mechanism of injury: long sliding falls on a frozen spring snowpack. However, in each case, the events that led up to the accident are different and worth investigating.  Finally, the treatment provided to each patient before rescuers arrived should be examined.

Spring skiing is all about timing. Start your day too early and the snow will still be frozen; end your day too late and your slope might turn to cement as you watch.  A knowledgeable Tuckerman spring skier will follow the sun, often starting the day on east or north-east facing slopes and slowly work their way across the Bowl and end the day on south facing slopes that are catching the last of the sun’s rays before the sun disappears over the Bigelow Lawn.  Catch a slope at its softest and there are times when if you fall, you won’t go anywhere as you sink into the corn or mushy mashed potatoes.  Once that slope goes into the shade, it can freeze almost instantly, necessitating the use of crampons on the way up and creating no-fall territory on the way down.

Looking down Hillman's Highway around 3:20pm.

Looking down Hillman’s Highway around 3:20pm. Photo: L. Benedict.

When the group of six skiers stood at the top of Hillman’s Highway, they discussed what conditions they would encounter. They realized the snow would be firm and very challenging to ski down.  Committing to the descent is understandable and I would hazard a guess that many others would have done the same despite the high consequences of a fall in these conditions.  Having toured from the Gulf of Slides, they had no mental map of where the ice bulges were and which way around the rocks were the best.  Skiing a run while it is frozen solid can be extremely challenging.  It is best to stack the odds in your favor and perhaps realize that there are one or two spots, while skiable earlier in the day when it was soft, that may require switching from skis to crampons for a few feet on the way down.

It is interesting to note that as this group of six skiers stood at the top of Hillman’s, a group of three topped out at the same spot after having climbed the gully. This group of climbers consisted of one person wearing crampons and carrying a mountaineering axe and two wearing snowshoes and carrying one technical ice climbing tool.  Seeing that two people had just snowshoed up Hillman’s further convinced the skiers the risk was manageable.  At least one skier later admitted the snowshoers looked terrified at what they had just done and perhaps this should have given the skiers pause for concern.

Snowshoers topping out Hillman's Highway

Snowshoers topping out Hillman’s Highway. Photo: L. Benedict

These three climbers continued to the summit of Mount Washington and eventually became the group of hikers who required the second rescue. This group pushed themselves hard and put in a long day, eventually making the decision to glissade down unfamiliar terrain rather than sty on the trail.  Had they reevaluated their plan of summiting as the day progressed and became late, they may have turned around and descended while still having energy.  It also must be taken into account that this group used inappropriate gear for the terrain.  Even with the traction provided by modern snowshoes, it is a miracle they were able to ascend Hillman’s Highway in the condition they found it.  Getting down any trail or terrain feature on the mountain that day with snowshoes would have been an extreme affair.

The final point worth discussing is the level of care provided by members of both groups to the patients before rescuers arrived. Of the six skiers in Hillman’s, only one of this group had training in first aid that he had taken several years ago.  When Snow Rangers arrived at the scene, 30 minutes after the fall, no care had been provided besides preventing the patient from sliding further down the slope.  If this accident had taken place outside of Tuckerman Ravine and help had not been .25 miles away, the result would have been drastically different.  On the summit cone, the first rescuers reached the scene over two hours after the incident occurred and the broken leg was still not stabilized.  The patient was half on the snow and the two uninjured were becoming cold from standing still and waiting for help.

The trend in backcountry enthusiasts taking avalanche education classes is rising. This is great to see.  Realize that a lot can happen while recreating in the mountains and there are skills you and your partner should learn before taking avalanche classes.  Taking first aid skills into the woods with you is a valuable insurance policy, as is learning what you can do with the contents of your pack.  Many schools around the country offer classes in wilderness first aid skills.  It was lucky these two incidents occurred close to help as they may have had different outcomes had rescuers not been close by.

There are plenty of lessons to take away from these two events, most stemming from the basics: being prepared and making safe-travel decisions. Preparedness with the right gear is vitally important.  This can get you safely home and also saves much time and energy as it means more efficient travel.  Preparedness with the right skills is necessary.  Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the day’s adventure goes fine and everyone has fun.  However, that one time where something goes wrong, having the right knowledge available can mean a big difference to your partner or yourself.  History has proven that many accidents take place when people are tired and looking for a shortcut.  If it means getting home safe, taking the long way down may be the right choice.   Whether it’s following the lower-angled ridge that avoids the steep slope or shouldering your skis and climbing down a ski run, it may not be glorious at the moment, but your family and friends will praise you when you walk in the door at the end of the night.

Fall in Huntington Ravine

At approximately 12:10pm on Sunday, February 7, one member of a climbing party of three slipped while approaching a technical snow and ice climb in Huntington Ravine. The climber rapidly gained speed on the 35-40 degree snow slope beneath Central Gully and tumbled into the rocks below, sustaining non-life threatening injuries.  Two nearby parties of two including a guide and student went to the party’s aid and assisted the injured climber down to a rescue cache where she was loaded into a litter. Snow Rangers received initial notification of the incident via a satellite phone call to the Saco RD office. Snow Rangers reached the group and assisted the climbing party in transporting the patient to Pinkham Notch, arriving at approximately 4:00pm.

Four days prior to the incident, temperatures on the mountain soared into the mid-30s F for over 24 hours.  Following this, the temperature dropped to near 0F creating a thick, knife hard, melt-freeze crust.  While stabilizing the snowpack, these conditions create a very hard and icy snowpack. A meager snowpack from a dry and warm winter created lots of water ice in Huntington Ravine to climb, but with plenty of rocks to serve as obstacles to a falling climber.

As many parties do, the plan for this group was to rope-up at a terrain bench beneath the ice bulge marking the start of the steepest climbing in Central Gully. The most experienced climber went first and coached the two less experienced climbers to use both tools to climb the ten feet of exposed ice in order to reach the flat platform of snow beneath the ice bulge. The second, and least experienced of the three, slipped climbing this section. After losing both ice tools, the victim managed to orient her feet downhill but soon caught a crampon in the snow.  Starting to tumble, the victim came to a stop just above the Fan, falling a distance of approximately 200 feet.  A guide and client, who had just descended Pinnacle Gully were nearby and went to her aid.  After assessing the injuries and stabilizing the victim’s shoulder and ankle, the guide short-roped the victim with assistance down the snow slope. At this point, the remaining two climbers in the team retrieved a litter and splint from the Dow Cache and met the patient and guide as they descended.  Volunteers and Snow Rangers slid the litter down the Tuckerman Ravine trail to Pinkham Notch where the party drove the patient to the hospital for further evaluation and treatment.

Analysis:

Long, sliding falls are the leading cause of numerous injuries in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravine.  Melt-freeze crusts can be rock hard and often make self-arresting impossible.  This was the case in this fall.  It is important to assess snow conditions and combine this with as honest assessment of the experience of members of a party. Depending on the competence and risk tolerance of party members, even low-angle snow slopes may need to be belayed in order to assure safe passage. In this case, the most experienced member had demonstrated self-arrest and offered to teach the other members of the party in the Fan on the approach. The fact that they declined to practice the technique turned out to be irrelevant since it is unlikely that anyone could arrest a fall in these hard snow conditions. Even in ideal snow conditions, steep, snow climbing requires flawless technique and more often resembles unroped, solo climbing with the requirement that “the climber must not fall”.  The conditions this day were far from ideal and required a greater measure of security for a team that included novice alpine climbers. This team carried a 33m rope which may have played a role in being frugal with its use. A climb like Central Gully, especially in hard snow conditions would be more efficiently climbed, and belayed with a 60m, or even 70m, rope with weight savings perhaps realized with a smaller diameter, rather than a shorter rope.

Though this party did not make it to the most technically difficult part of this climb, they did experience difficulty in the type of terrain in which many other parties struggle. The transitions found within alpine terrain with sections of 3rd, 4th and low 5th class, forces climbers to find a balance between speed and safety.  History has shown that it is not at all unusual for inexperienced alpine climbers to be challenged by building secure anchors when confronted with long and continuous pitches of snow with little, if any, options for more familiar ice screw or rock protection anchors.  This factor has led many parties down the risky path of unroped climbing, tenuous, seated belays or running belays with no protection at all in Central Gully. In many cases, climbers have the skills necessary to climb much steeper and harder rock or ice climbs but are lacking the experience in negotiating longer, lower angled terrain. The ability to construct secure T-slot anchors with pickets or axes, effectively manage rope for efficient belays and having the judgement to transition to the next higher level of security for the terrain before it is really needed  should be well developed before leading novice climbers into the more committing terrain of Huntington Ravine.  It would be a mistake to consider Huntington climbs merely longer ice climbs requiring steep ice skill sets.

This party was fortunate that a well-trained and experienced guide and client were nearby. The guide’s satellite phone call ultimately reached the Snow Ranger staff but it was the pair’s ability to render prompt assistance, organize a rescue effort and share knowledge of the nearby rescue cache which sped the rescue along and kept the incident from being drawn out into the night. Be sure to check out our Emergency Planning page in the Search and Rescue section of our website which contains more information to help you develop a solid contingency plan for your next climb.

 

Long Sliding Fall – Chute

At approximately 1600, a skier took a long sliding fall down the Chute and suffered a lower leg injury. Patient was treated and assisted down the Tuckerman Ravine trail to Hermit Lake and then transported via snow cat to PNVC at 1700.

Skier fall in Huntington

A skier became caught in his sluff* while skiing Diagonal Gully in Huntington Ravine, causing him to fall approximately 50′ over the Harvard Bulge. He came to rest about 150′ below the ice. His partner knew something had happened, but could not see the fall and did not know exactly what happened. He then skied down, but did not locate his injured partner until he had reached the bottom of the fan. At the same time a solo ice climber had recognized what had taken place and was working his way to the injured skier. The climber and uninjured skier were able to contact 911 to summon assistance while they began to treat the injured skier, who was suffering from a very painful back injury.

Snow Rangers, Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol members, and two AMC caretakers responded on foot from Hermit Lake. The rescue effort was fairly straightforward. A backboard, litter, and technical rescue gear were brought up to patient’s location. He was stabilized and packaged in the litter. Due to the steepness of the snow slope, the litter was belayed down to the bottom of the fan. From here, additional rescuers from AMC, AVSAR, and MRS joined the effort to slide and carry the skier down to the ambulance at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

In total, this rescue effort was comprised of 20 people. All but the one Snow Ranger on scene were helping as volunteers. The groups that help make rescues possible in the White Mountains are a dedicated bunch. We sincerely appreciate all that they do. If you are interested in learning more, the New Hampshire Outdoor Council and Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol are good places to start.

*There is a fine line between a wet loose snow avalanche and the normal sluffing produced by skiers in steep terrain. Whether this incident should be classified as an avalanche incident or more simply caused by heavy sluffing may be debatable, but we are considering this to be an accident caused by a loose wet avalanche. In this gully, there are not many options for a skier to get away from his or her sluff, which is a common course of action. The skier described the sluff that caught and carried him over the ice cliff as being up to 3′ deep, wet, and heavy. He described trying to fight it momentarily before realizing that it was too big to fight. When we arrived on scene, there was a sluff debris pile in the immediate vicinity, but it was not deep enough to have buried a person. The primary hazard associated with the loose snow avalanche in this case is the cliff that sits at the base of the route.

It is also worth mentioning that the pair of skiers are “regulars” on Mt. Washington. They understand the risk involved in the sport and willingly engage with it. The two skiers were equipped with technical climbing gear (rope, harnesses, proper ice tools, etc.) as well as avalanche rescue gear. We understand that accidents can happen to anyone on any given day, no matter how experienced, skilled, or gear-laden one is. This fundamental and unchangeable rule is set by the mountains that we choose to recreate in. This is why we always encourage visitors to bring the right gear to not only help prevent an accident, but to help get through unexpected or unfortunate events.

Sliding Falls

2016-03-13 On Sunday afternoon, March 13, two separate accidents occurred on the east side of Mount Washington. Both accidents involved long sliding falls and resulted in life-threatening injuries. Luckily, the skies were clear and the wind was calm, allowing both patients to be evacuated via helicopter.  There are several lessons to take away from these incidents, all coming back to the basics of being prepared and making safe travel decisions.

The first accident occurred when a skier slipped and fell in Hillman’s Highway.  Hitting several rocks on the way down, he sustained serious injuries requiring immediate evacuation.  Just as the helicopter departed Hermit Lake, the second call came in of an injured hiker on the summit cone.  Again, due to a serious injury and a lengthy carry-out, USFS Snow Rangers decided to use a helicopter for transport.  A large thank you must be given to all rescuers involved including the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol, AMC, Mount Rescue Service, AVSAR, NH Fish and Game, and several volunteers as the evacuations went smoothly and patients arrived at advanced care in a timely manner.

Weather and Snowpack Analysis

The week leading up to these two incidents coincided with the transition from winter to spring in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravine. On Tuesday, March 8 at 10pm, the temperature on the summit rose and remained above freezing for 48 hours.  During this time period, the summit recorded over 1.25” of rain.  After the warm up, temperatures dropped over 24 hours to the low teens, allowing the water-saturated snowpack to freeze solid.  On Saturday, temperatures warmed along with clear skies, allowing the snow to soften and turn to corn in many areas.  Skiers reported excellent spring conditions in The Lip, Right Gully, and the East Snowfields on the summit.  Left Gully and Hillman’s Highway had parts that softened, while parts remained frozen solid.  Saturday was followed by a blustery, clear day on Sunday.  Skiers reported certain areas softening up, however not to the degree as the day before.  Sunday was the type of day where as soon as snow had shadows cast upon it, the surface froze instantly into firm concrete.

Incident #1: Skier Fall in Hillman’s Highway

Around 3:20pm, six experienced skiers began to descend Hillman’s Highway. One of the skiers slipped and fell approximately 1,000 feet.  Upon arrival at the scene, USFS Snow Rangers and members of the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol determined the patient had sustained multiple life-threatening injuries.  After a lower down the remainder of Hillman’s Highway and transport to the awaiting helicopter at Hermit Lake, the patient was in the air and on his way to advanced medical care at 5:14pm.

Hillman's Highway a week prior to the incident. The two red circles indicate where the skier fell and where he came to a rest.

Hillman’s Highway a week prior to the incident. The two red circles indicate where the skier fell and where he came to a rest.

The party of six initially started as multiple parties. The group that the patient was a part of toured into the Gulf of Slides and experienced decent corn conditions in Gully #1.  After the descent, the group decided to climb up and over Boott Spur and ski the looker’s right fork of Hillman’s Highway.  Standing at the top of Hillman’s Highway, the group, now joined by three other skiers, recognized the snow had changed dramatically from their previous run.  Two skiers, including the soon to be patient, donned crampons and an ice axe and climbed down about 200 feet to better assess and avoid the ice at the rollover.  Recognizing the hazard, members of the group collectively decided the risk was manageable with conservative skiing techniques.  The first skier made his way to the bottom of the choke and pulled aside to allow the second skier to go.  This second skier lost his edge on a patch of ice in the narrows.  As the snow had gone into the shade and turned to concrete, the skier had no chance to self-arrest and began an out-of-control slide down Hillman’s Highway.  Due to the low snowpack this winter, Hillman’s Highway, normally a good choice for novice Tuckerman skiers, was full of ice bulges and rock outcroppings.

Falling about 1,000 feet, he came to rest just above the dogleg near the bottom of Hillman’s Highway. The rest of the group made their way to him as quick as the conditions would allow.  Upon arrival, they prevented him from sliding further down the slope and immediately for help.  Snow Rangers, along with Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol members arrived at the patient about 30 minutes after his fall.  The initial assessment indicated life threatening injuries.  Oxygen was administered, the decision to transport via helicopter was made, and the patient was strapped into a litter for travel to the awaiting helicopter at Hermit Lake.

The helicopter at Hermit Lake. Photo by Sam Bendroth

The helicopter at Hermit Lake. Photo: S. Bendroth

Incident #2: Hiker Fall near South East Snowfields

At 5:16pm on Sunday evening, the Gorham Police Department received a call from hikers in distress on the summit cone of Mount Washington. There was confusion as to the exact location of the hikers, but they told Snow Rangers via cell phone that one member of their group of three had broken his femur during a glissade that turned into an out-of-control slide, and was now getting very cold.  A hasty team of one Snow Ranger and the AMC caretaker departed Hermit Lake at 5:45pm, ascending the Lion Head summer trail.  With weather still clear and calm, and dealing again with a possible life-threatening injury, Snow Rangers again decided the best evacuation option was with a helicopter.  The hasty team made visual contact with the hikers just before reaching the Alpine Garden/ Lion Head Junction.  At 7:07pm, the helicopter landed .25 miles away from the patient.  Snow Rangers quickly realized that due to difficult terrain, it was unfeasible to drag the patient to the LZ without a litter.  As the helicopter had to return to base at 8pm due to flight regulations, it left the scene at 7:40pm without the patient.

The east side of the summit cone in summer. The incident site is .25 miles from the LZ.

Over the next hour, more rescuers and a litter arrived. Upon further discussion with dispatch, a new crew boarded the helicopter and took flight, aiming for the landing zone established east of the Alpine Garden Trail.  This helicopter landed at 9:14pm, 10 minutes after the rescuers and patient arrived.  The helicopter departed with the patient at 9:26pm and rescuers made their way to the snowcat at the Cow Pasture and descended the auto road.

Analysis

Both of these accidents have the same mechanism of injury: long sliding falls on a frozen spring snowpack. However, in each case, the events that led up to the accident are different and worth investigating.  Finally, the treatment provided to each patient before rescuers arrived should be examined.

Spring skiing is all about timing. Start your day too early and the snow will still be frozen; end your day too late and your slope might turn to cement as you watch.  A knowledgeable Tuckerman spring skier will follow the sun, often starting the day on east or north-east facing slopes and slowly work their way across the Bowl and end the day on south facing slopes that are catching the last of the sun’s rays before the sun disappears over the Bigelow Lawn.  Catch a slope at its softest and there are times when if you fall, you won’t go anywhere as you sink into the corn or mushy mashed potatoes.  Once that slope goes into the shade, it can freeze almost instantly, necessitating the use of crampons on the way up and creating no-fall territory on the way down.

Looking down Hillman's Highway around 3:20pm.

Looking down Hillman’s Highway around 3:20pm. Photo: L. Benedict.

When the group of six skiers stood at the top of Hillman’s Highway, they discussed what conditions they would encounter. They realized the snow would be firm and very challenging to ski down.  Committing to the descent is understandable and I would hazard a guess that many others would have done the same despite the high consequences of a fall in these conditions.  Having toured from the Gulf of Slides, they had no mental map of where the ice bulges were and which way around the rocks were the best.  Skiing a run while it is frozen solid can be extremely challenging.  It is best to stack the odds in your favor and perhaps realize that there are one or two spots, while skiable earlier in the day when it was soft, that may require switching from skis to crampons for a few feet on the way down.

It is interesting to note that as this group of six skiers stood at the top of Hillman’s, a group of three topped out at the same spot after having climbed the gully. This group of climbers consisted of one person wearing crampons and carrying a mountaineering axe and two wearing snowshoes and carrying one technical ice climbing tool.  Seeing that two people had just snowshoed up Hillman’s further convinced the skiers the risk was manageable.  At least one skier later admitted the snowshoers looked terrified at what they had just done and perhaps this should have given the skiers pause for concern.

Snowshoers topping out Hillman's Highway

Snowshoers topping out Hillman’s Highway. Photo: L. Benedict

These three climbers continued to the summit of Mount Washington and eventually became the group of hikers who required the second rescue. This group pushed themselves hard and put in a long day, eventually making the decision to glissade down unfamiliar terrain rather than sty on the trail.  Had they reevaluated their plan of summiting as the day progressed and became late, they may have turned around and descended while still having energy.  It also must be taken into account that this group used inappropriate gear for the terrain.  Even with the traction provided by modern snowshoes, it is a miracle they were able to ascend Hillman’s Highway in the condition they found it.  Getting down any trail or terrain feature on the mountain that day with snowshoes would have been an extreme affair.

The final point worth discussing is the level of care provided by members of both groups to the patients before rescuers arrived. Of the six skiers in Hillman’s, only one of this group had training in first aid that he had taken several years ago.  When Snow Rangers arrived at the scene, 30 minutes after the fall, no care had been provided besides preventing the patient from sliding further down the slope.  If this accident had taken place outside of Tuckerman Ravine and help had not been .25 miles away, the result would have been drastically different.  On the summit cone, the first rescuers reached the scene over two hours after the incident occurred and the broken leg was still not stabilized.  The patient was half on the snow and the two uninjured were becoming cold from standing still and waiting for help.

The trend in backcountry enthusiasts taking avalanche education classes is rising. This is great to see.  Realize that a lot can happen while recreating in the mountains and there are skills you and your partner should learn before taking avalanche classes.  Taking first aid skills into the woods with you is a valuable insurance policy, as is learning what you can do with the contents of your pack.  Many schools around the country offer classes in wilderness first aid skills.  It was lucky these two incidents occurred close to help as they may have had different outcomes had rescuers not been close by.

There are plenty of lessons to take away from these two events, most stemming from the basics: being prepared and making safe-travel decisions. Preparedness with the right gear is vitally important.  This can get you safely home and also saves much time and energy as it means more efficient travel.  Preparedness with the right skills is necessary.  Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the day’s adventure goes fine and everyone has fun.  However, that one time where something goes wrong, having the right knowledge available can mean a big difference to your partner or yourself.  History has proven that many accidents take place when people are tired and looking for a shortcut.  If it means getting home safe, taking the long way down may be the right choice.   Whether it’s following the lower-angled ridge that avoids the steep slope or shouldering your skis and climbing down a ski run, it may not be glorious at the moment, but your family and friends will praise you when you walk in the door at the end of the night.

Fall on Lion Head Winter Route

On the descent from a summit hike, a hiker fell approximately 50′ down a steep section of the Lion Head route. He injured his lower leg in the fall. One member of the man’s party quickly hiked to Hermit Lake to notify USFS Snow Rangers. At the same time, a distress signal was sent using a SPOT  satellite device. Snow Rangers responded, found the man ambulatory, and transported him to Pinkham Notch via snow tractor.